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Kennett grad Jeff Locke dominates Portland, picks up win for Altoona Curve

Sea Dogs all 'Locke'd up

Jeff Locke fires a pitch during action Wednesday, Aug. 18, at Hadlock Field in Portland, Maine. (Dennis Coughlin Photo). (click for larger version)
August 26, 2010
And the tall lefty did not disappoint, as he dominated the Portland Sea Dogs, leading his Altoona Curve squad to a 1-0 win in front of a sell-out crowd of 7,368 fans. Locke pitched seven innings, allowed only three hits and one walk and struck out eight. He threw 79 pitches, 55 for strikes. The performance marked his longest Double A outing of the year.

"I didn't know how he was going to respond to all these people," said Altoona pitching coach Tom Filer. "But he was on top of his game."

"It went pretty much the way I scripted it," Locke laughed. "That's the way you'd like it to go. For me, fortunately, it went the right way."

The fact that friends, family, former teammates and even former opponents were in the stands made the experience even greater for the lefty, who picked up his first win since his first Altoona start on July 16.

"It was a lot of fun, it was a rush," he said. "You never expect to go out and do that every night."

Locke's father, Alan, had only seen his son pitch two innings since being drafted by the Braves, and Wednesday night's appearance gave the elder Locke a chance to see his son in action.

From the get-go, it was obvious that although the Sea Dogs were the home team and are an affiliate of New England's team, the Boston Red Sox, many in the crowd were there to see Locke in action. The Sea Dogs earned plenty of applause for their play, but so did Altoona, as every Locke strikeout of a Sea Dog batter brought a cheer from the Locke fans in the house. Locke even stole a bit of the thunder from Slugger, the Sea Dogs mascot.

After pitching his seven innings, Locke was walking across the field to get to the Altoona clubhouse at the same time that Slugger was cruising around on the field as well. Many of the fans rose to their feet, but not to cheer on Slugger, instead, cheering for Locke as he finished his night.

Right off the bat, it looked like the Curve would give the Kennett graduate a lead to work with. With two outs in the first inning, Jim Negrych and Matt Hague both lined base hits to left field. However, Sea Dog hurler Blake Maxwell got a grounder to short to end the inning, sending Locke to the hill in his #31 jersey.

And he delivered the goods in the first inning. Locke struck out Che-Hsuan Lin to open the game, then got a grounder to first and struck out Ray Chang to end the frame quickly.

While he admitted to feeling a few butterflies warming up in the bullpen, Locke said the feeling went away when he took the hill, as it was just another start.

"You really have to lock in if you're going to be successful," he said. "Everything felt really good.

However, the Curve could not get their bats going in support of Locke, as Maxwell sent them down in order in the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings before turning the ball over to the Portland bullpen. Eammon Portice did the same in the seventh inning, keeping Altoona off the board.

Locke, however, was equally as dominant. He walked Luis Exposito, one of the Red Sox top catching prospects, to open the second inning, but came back with back-to-back strikeouts of Anthony Rizzo and Ryan Lavarnway and got Jorge Padron to fly to center to end the inning.

Any hope Locke fans had of a no-hitter went up in smoke to open the bottom of the third inning, as Ryan Khoury led off the frame with a double to left. A sacrifice bunt by Matt Sheely moved him to third, but Locke induced a grounder to third and another to first to get out of the inning with nobody crossing the plate. It was the only inning in the seven that he threw that Locke didn't record a strikeout.

The lefty got two pop-ups and recorded another strikeout in working a perfect fourth inning, but the Sea Dogs got their second hit of the night in the fifth.

After Locke struck out Lavarnway to open the bottom of the fifth inning, Padron pushed a shot down the left field line for a double. The ball wasn't hit hard, but with the defense playing off the line, Padron was able to turn it into a double. However, Locke got a fly ball to right and a grounder to short to get out of the inning and send the game to the sixth inning with no score on the board.

Locke got a bit of help from his defense to open the sixth inning. The first batter, Lin, popped a fly ball to shallow right field. Miles Durham charged in toward the line, but slipped, allowing the ball to fall on the outfield grass. However, secondbaseman Chase d'Arnaud, who was also chasing the fly ball, got to the ball and fired it toward the infield as Lin was rounding second looking for a triple. Hague, the first baseman, took the relay throw and fired a strike to Josh Harrison at third base, who applied the tag to cut down Lin for the first out of the inning.

Locke then struck out Nate Spears for out number two and got a grounder to short to end the inning.

In the bottom of the seventh, Locke got a grounder to second base and another to first base for the first two outs of the inning. He then struck out Lavarnway for the third time in the game, ending his outing with eight strikeouts, but with his team still unable to put a run on the board.

That all changed in the top of the eighth inning, as Portice couldn't preserve the shutout for the Sea Dogs. With one out, catcher Hector Gimenez doubled to right center field. Yung-Chi Chen followed with a base hit to left, putting runners on the corners. Number nine hitter Anthony Norman then singled to right to drive home Gimenez with the first run of the game. Portice got the next two batters to end the inning, but Altoona had a 1-0 lead.

Reliever Michael Dubee came on and set the side down in order in the eighth and the ninth, striking out two Sea Dogs in the final frame to secure the win for Locke, his second win since joining the Curve in mid-July.

"I just care about us winning," the lefty said. "We got a run when we needed it and got a road win. I'm really happy for the team more than anything."

Locke, who had slept at his family's home in Redstone the night before the game, said it was great to get home and great to see so many people come out and cheer him on.

"I appreciate everyone coming out," he said. "The fans were unbelievable."

"I am so glad he didn't disappoint anyone tonight," Filer added. "He was outstanding.

"He was hitting his spots and mixing his speed," the pitching coach continued. "If you keep it down, you're going to be successful."

"Everything came together at the right time," Locke noted. "It's the way you draw it to be the night before.

The many friends, family and former teammates that came out to support Locke all left Hadlock Field satisfied that the kid dubbed "The Redstone Rocket" by the Conway Daily Sun's Lloyd Jones, is progressing quite nicely in his ascension through the minors.

Locke was drafted in the 2006 draft by the Atlanta Braves after leading the Kennett High School baseball team to the state championship game.

He went 4-3 in 10 games in the Gulf Coast League that year and pitched for the Danville (Ga.) Braves in 2007, compiling a record of 7-1 in 13 games.

In 2008 he moved up to the Braves Single A team in Rome, Ga., and recorded a 5-12 record in 25 games, pitching a career high 139.2 innings.

He started the 2009 season with Myrtle Beach (S.C.) and went 1-4 in 10 games before being traded to the Pirates. He was dealt, along with Gorkys Hernandez and Charlie Morton, from Atlanta to the Pirates in exchange for All-Star outfielder Nate McLouth on June 3, 2009.

He joined the Pirates' A affiliate in Lynchburg, Va., and went 4-4 in 17 games.

He started 2010 in Bradenton with the Pirates High A affiliate in Bradenton, Fla., and recorded a 9-3 record with a 3.54 earned run average before earning a call-up to the Double A squad in Altoona on July 12.

He began his AA career with a win over Harrisburg on July 16, giving up no runs on four hits in five innings, then earned three straight no decisions, pitching six innings in each game against Akron (July 21), Erie (July 26) and Richmond (July 31). In the Erie game he struck out nine batters, his AA high.

Locke took the loss on Aug. 6 at Harrisburg, giving up six runs on eight hits in five innings. He made his first home start for the Curve on Aug. 12 and didn't earn a decision, giving up three runs on eight hits through six innings.

With the win over the Sea Dogs, the Curve improved to 4-3 in Locke's starts.

The chance remains that Locke may pitch again in New England this season, as the New Hampshire Fisher Cats and the Curve may be on a path towards a playoff meeting later in the year.

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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